The concept of “programmed retardation” comprises policies, programs, and instructional practices designed to guarantee educational failure for students. Significantly, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s momentous Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, education strategies originally implemented to deny quality education to many black students began an overall decline of America’s public schools in both urban and suburban areas. This trend has led writers of dramatically different viewpoints to comment on America’s declining educational competitiveness in the world (e.g., Berman 2006; Friedman 2006).
In April 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education, issued a report that stated unambiguously that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” The report, titled A Nation at Risk, likened the devastation of public education to “an act of war.” “We have in effect,” the report warned, “been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” Many Americans seemed shocked by the report’s findings, though they were not a new discovery.
The source of the crisis in public education in many of America’s cities can be traced back to the late 1950s and 1960s. The Brown decision ended state-sanctioned racial apartheid in America’s public schools; but the reasoning that all black schools were inherently inferior was incorrect. In a deliberate attempt to distort and evade the Court’s decision, many urban school systems outside of the South installed a pupil assignment policy known as “tracking,” which effectively resegregated many schools by channeling the majority of black students into the lowest “track” early in their educational careers.
Interpreting the Brown ruling as an opportunity to improve their children’s education, black residents in many cities across America fought the policy of tracking. In 1969 the community activist Jewell Mazique labeled the policy “programmed retardation,” declaring that tracking was more harmful than the conservative practice of racist segregation in the Old South.
Reasoning that poor education would ultimately hurt black and white working-class children in the nation’s capitol, community leaders called for neither racial integration nor segregation. Instead, they demanded quality education. Mazique and other Washington, D.C., community activists defined this educational goal unambiguously, calling for: (1) the distribution and mastery of the fundamental tools of learning—namely reading, writing, computational skills, and thinking; (2) academic motivation; and (3) positive character development (Mazique 2000).
As in so many other urban areas, Washington, D.C.’s black community lost the political struggle for quality education. In 1967, the celebrated Hobson v. Hansen case terminated the school system’s tracking policy, but the court claimed that racial integration automatically improved the educational performance of black students. Liberal civil rights leaders and educational managerial elites won the day and began to implement various racial integration policies. By the 1970s, many schools system adopted the policy of racial-balance busing, which transported a percentage of black students (and later Latino students) from their neighborhood schools to white schools in order to achieve racial balance. Magnet school programs and other education experiments also were implemented in order to bring about racial integration.
Because integration is not an end in itself but only a means to an end, the contradictions and dilemmas of this approach quickly became apparent. Authentic racial integration, however, could not be realized with policy strategies that focused mainly on the well-being of white students and their schools. Therefore, as many black students were drawn away from their local schools and communities, these schools and other community institutions continued to decline as a result of neglect and economic impoverishment.
Yet educational managers and civil rights elites put forward racial integration as the singular goal of education, demanding that it be imposed on public schools at all costs. However, the implementation of various racial integration policies did not result in educational equality for black students. This was the case because educational professionals and civil rights elites overlooked the issue of quality education. As a result, good classroom teaching declined, the fundamental tools of knowledge were abandoned, and positive character building was perverted. Beginning in the 1970s, many school systems turned away from teaching students important values, such as respect for others and self-restraint, which severely distorted the acculturation and socialization functions of schooling.
Moreover, as white flight, and later middle-class black flight, from cities to suburbs accelerated in the late 1960s and 1970s, America allowed its urban areas and their schools to decay and deteriorate. In the process, school regimes bused African American and Latino children to an expanding system of largely white and affluent suburban schools in order to achieve “racial balance.” This tactic helped to destroy the sense of community in many urban areas, and inner-city life became increasingly characterized by economic impoverishment, political disenfranchisement, and cultural despair. The consequences of this course of events became evident with the collapse of public education in urban areas across the nation. Ironically, school budgets have continued to rise, along with a growing ossification and inefficiency in urban school bureaucracies.
Adding insult to injury, liberal members of the educational managerial elite rationalized the denial of quality education to black students by applying various theories of cultural deprivation. To observers like Mazique, categorizing African-descended Americans as “culturally deprived” or “culturally disadvantaged” has merely compounded and continued the legacy of cultural domination and the denial of black human dignity that began during the Atlantic slave trade. It is a strategy for keeping the oppressed in a condition of oppression.
These unfortunate educational trends and developments characterized urban and less affluent public school systems in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, however, even many suburban and more affluent public school systems have experienced an educational crisis. They confront a growing rate of complex problems, including functional illiteracy, violence, increased dropout (and “pushout”) rates, discipline problems, drug use, teenage pregnancy, gang activity, and teacher burnout. As a result, generations of young people are being educationally sabotaged in many public schools across America. In his book Retarding America: The Imprisonment of Potential (1993), Michael Brunner demonstrates that programmed retardation, and especially the failure to teach young people to read, results in increasing juvenile crime and incarceration.
In the current stage of American postindustrial development, the collapse of public schooling is frightening. Continued public school experimentation—including privatizing strategies or policies supposedly designed to “leave no child behind”—has not proved successful in big-city school systems. Yet in the emerging society, knowledge and the management of people are supplanting money and manufacturing as the only sources of political and economic power. Resisting the professional-managerial class’ cultural domination and intellectual imperialism requires that people come to view knowledge and its utilization as sources of power. Learning, therefore, needs to be understood as a lifelong project and an indispensable investment for social development. Educational credentials will more and more be the key to a person’s role in society. However, more than the possession of certificates and diplomas will be required to put one’s knowledge into practice. Knowledge-based performance and decision making will be the necessary attributes of the educated person.
To many observers, a generation or more of urban African American and Latino students have been betrayed by the U.S. educational system, and their educational underdevelopment is undercutting their ability to survive and develop in a postindustrial society grown cynically indifferent to social suffering. To overcome a looming educational crisis, America will need to devise and implement a national educational strategy, guided by the principle that in the new age of knowledge, science, and technology, investment in quality educational advancement is the very foundation of national development and competitiveness.
SEE ALSO Brown v. Board of Education, 1954; Desegregation, School; Education, Unequal; Educational Quality; Race and Education; Resegregation of Schools; Segregation, School; Tracking in Schools
Brunner, Michael S. 1993. Retarding America: The Imprisonment of Potential. Portland, OR: Halcyon House.
Friedman, Thomas L. 2006. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. Updated ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Hayes, Floyd W., III. 1990. Race, Urban Politics, and Educational Policy-Making in Washington, D.C.: A Community’s Struggle for Quality Education. Urban Education 25 (3): 237–257.
Mazique, Jewell R. C. 2000. Betrayal in the Schools. In A Turbulent Voyage: Readings in African American Studies, 3rd ed. Ed. Floyd W. Hayes III, 392–398. San Diego, CA: Collegiate Press.
Floyd W. Hayes III